Down in the Basement: ‘Cactus Jack’ (2021)

❉ A scruffy, scrappy, and powerful piece of make-a-statement cinema as likely to offend as it will entice.

“The titular villain receives a visitor in the form of a wannabe documentary filmmaker, who is giddy over the prospect of interviewing a grotesque racist as a way of documenting the ills of today. But when the tables are turned and Jack winds up being way more dangerous than previously anticipated, it becomes a matter of life or death for the documentarian, whose odds for survival seem to slip away more and more by the minute.”

A piece of unhinged madness that’s been in the works for a few years and feels all the more alive and vital due to very recent events in Washington D.C., Cactus Jack, from sibling filmmakers Jay and Chris Thornton, plunges the viewer into a nightmarish hell-scape where your worst Trumper fantasies become reality. This scruffy, scrappy, and undeniably powerful piece of make-a-statement cinema, Cactus Jack is likely to offend just as many people as it will entice, and I’ll make no bones about it – the purposeful thematic ugliness of the film is going to test lots of folks’ patience.

Coming off as an ultra-low budget riff on the “Nick the Nazi” character essayed by the great Frederic Forrest in Joel Schumacher’s all-timer Falling Down with the jump-cut-edginess of 1990s-era Oliver Stone, Them Thorntons (as they’re playfully billed in press notes) have definitely pulled out all the stops in terms of displaying a thoroughly engrossing milieu of insane human vitriol, with the film serving as a potent societal warning.

The fiercely committed and ultimately very brave actor R. Michael Gull plays the titular villain, a man who has seemingly seen and wrongly interpreted the classic “Ed Norton destroys himself and humanity in front of a mirror for two minutes” scene in Spike Lee’s masterpiece 25th Hour. In that one, riveting passage, Norton’s character rails against everyone in the world by annihilating all ethnicities and religions, while spewing poisonous racism as a way of confronting everyone’s rage and hostility. And while that incendiary film was born out of the ashes of 9/11, the much more modestly scaled Cactus Jack was cemented out of the recent rise of Q-Anon whackos and misguided “Patriots” who bought into lies which were presented as truths by a mentally deranged president whose name isn’t worthy of being typed or printed. Jack receives a visitor in the form of a wannabe documentary filmmaker, played with strong instincts by Sam Kozé, who is giddy over the prospect of interviewing a grotesque racist as a way of documenting the ills of today. But when the tables are turned and Jack winds up being way more dangerous than previously anticipated, it becomes a matter of life or death for the documentarian, whose odds for survival seem to slip away more and more by the minute.

By mixing black and white and colour footage (Jay Thornton served as nimble director of photography) and cramping the majority of the narrative in a claustrophobic basement setting (the brothers were their own inventive production designers) replete with Nazi paraphernalia and all sorts of hate-monger imagery, the filmmakers keep you on edge at all times, which makes for a sometimes suffocating feeling while watching. But because they’re too crafty of storytellers, Them Thorntons resist the urge to go all in with their scalding nihilism, and what has felt like the world’s most disgusting found-footage experiment, then takes on a more fully cinematic sensation in the final moments.

Antonio Tranquilino’s creepy and varied musical score fully amplifies all of the most appropriate moments, and the jittery editing patterns favoured by the brothers and co-cutter Freddy Noriega provide the film with a sharp sense of aesthetics. Cactus Jack will certainly not be for everyone, but for fans of truly independent and outlaw cinema, this movie will get under your fingertips and start lifting up those nails. There are people out there in America who are just like Cactus Jack, and that truth is scarier than anything we can ever possibly see on a movie screen.


❉ ‘Cactus Jack’ (2021) is available for rent or purchase through Vimeo and is also available as a direct download (rental or purchase) through Them Thornton’s personal website. Visit www.cactusjackfilm.com for more information.

❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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